It’s Monday afternoon, in the run-up to the game this evening, and I’m in a Ukrainian restaurant near the Volga thinking about Volgograd. It isn’t how I expected. It turns its back on the river. Cars stop for you on zebra crossings. The broad quiet streets have, down their middle, broad walkways for pedestrians. The local subsidiary of Gazprom has excellent topiary.
On the other hand, the Volga cliff – on which the Soviets were desperate to keep a toehold during the battle of Stalingrad – is obvious enough. So is the thinness and longness of the city – 10 km or more – which cannot have helped the defence.
We are distinguishable by the fan cards round our necks. This morning there were lots of us at the Mamayev Kurgan, the hill that changed hands eight times during the battle,. To me, though, the vast statue there is like the Lion at Waterloo. It has no physical correspondence with the battle. The mill (below), which has been kept as it was after the battle, moves me more. Think of what made that building like it is. Think of attacking it. Think of defending it.
I don’t think it’s possible to come her without thinking of that battle. But it isn’t the most important thing. (When I asked my landlady about it she said in an offhand way yes, of course, we are the hero city.) The city is enjoying the World Cup. When TVs aren’t playing the current match they play the previous ones on a permanent loop:
There are flies which must be warded off. I like how these men have ensured that the child they’re with is well armed with a branch:
I asked a waitress if this happens only in June. Yes, she said; then the city kills them.
Yesterday afternoon I watched Mexico-Germany at a Georgian restaurant with supporters of Zenit St Petersburg and Spartak Moscow. We cheered Mexico’s goal because it was good. Вот это футбол (now that’s football), someone said. It was only later I remembered I was supposed to be worried about them biffing me.
I’ve met nothing but warmth. A young man from St Petersburg who is only going to one match chose this England game. I’ve met Kazakhs who chose this match to come to, and a Nigerian who has added this match to those of his own team, because of Kane and Stirling.
England isn’t the only team for neutrals, though. Just now I met a young Russian who is supporting Switzerland. As far as I can tell, out of sheer perversity.